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Climate Change and Human Rights

An issue related to Innocent’s post on environmental rights and Michele’s on “climate refugees” is the question of to what extent does climate change affect human rights in general? This is a question which is undergoing a lot of scrutiny not least since the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was, in 2008, charged with undertaking a study into the relationship between human rights and climate change by the Human Rights Council and since a group of Inuit citizens filed a petition before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, in 2005, alleging that the United States had violated a series of human rights by not taking steps to curb emission of greenhouse gasses (petition in full length available here).

While it is clear that climate change has the potential to severely impact on several human rights, such as, for example, the right to life or the right to property, and climate changes represents a threat to the enjoyment of such rights, it is not clear that climate change necessarily violates the said rights. This is down to a series of related problems of causation as well as the fact that most of the effects of climate change are, at least at this point, future events which human rights can do little to address. Moreover, prospective litigants will face serious problems proving that, as e.g. the Inuits tried, one particular act or omission attributable to State actor is linked to a specific incident or harm. This is, however, not the end of the link between human rights and climate change. Far from it. For instance, human rights law, especially under the ECHR, gives rise to a number of procedural obligations on the State, such as access to environmental information and judicial review, which may all be of relevance to climate change (see for instance Taşkin and others v. Turkey well as here). Moreover, these obligations are equally applicable to States when they seek to implement measures in an attempt to address climate change. A number of related questions remain though. For example, it may be called into question whether human rights as such have anything to add to the climate change debate. Proponents will argue that human rights can add a human face to a discussion which is often focused on technicalities and States thus putting forward a moral argument for addressing emissions. Another question is whether the “human rights community”, i.e. campaigners, lawyers and NGOs, are interested in taking on climate change as a problem when they already seem to have a full plate of cases to take. In other words, what are the strategic implications?

Clearly this is a problem which needs more research and thinking. For what it is worth, readers might find the following interesting if they would like to study the matter further. Prof. Knox, of Wake Forest Law School, has a really good piece coming out soon with Virginia Journal of International Law on the topic, which covers the various questions excellently and Edward Elgar is about to launch a new peer-reviewed journal dedicated to human rights and the environment (first issue to come out early next year) with the second issue dedicated to climate change and human rights (incidentally I will have a piece coming out in that issue on the topic).

One Comment

  1. J. Doherty J. Doherty 11 January 2012

    Excellent Article!
    if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions.
    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.
    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.
    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
    t present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.
    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees

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